How similar are the Ukrainian and Russian languages? This is probably the most common question foreigners ask us. We are always happy to explain 🙂

In this article, find the similarities and differences between Ukrainian and Russian languages on the different linguistic levels: vocabulary, letters & sounds, grammar, and sentence structure.

All Slavic languages, including Ukrainian and Russian, were dialects at first. They were formed out of the Proto-Slavic language that existed approximately from the 5th to 9th centuries in the pink area here:

Nowadays, there are more than 20 Slavic languages. Traditionally they are divided into three subgroups:

  • East Slavic (Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian),
  • West Slavic (like Polish, Czech or Slovak),
  • South Slavic (like Slovene, Croatian, Macedonian or Bulgarian).

However, modern linguists admit that this division is more geographical (and political) than factual.

Also, because Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian use the Cyrillic alphabet, they tend to be perceived as one group (although, Bulgarian, Macedonian and Serbian also use the Cyrillic alphabet).

However, in fact, in some aspects, Ukrainian is more similar to Slovak or Polish (from the West group) than to the Russian language.

Anyway, there are many similarities between the Ukrainian and Russian languages, as the two nations were connected politically and geographically for centuries.

Today Ukraine and Russia share a 2295-kilometer long border. In the past, the countries were two republics of the Soviet Union with very strong political ties. Earlier, for more than a century, a big part of Ukraine was a part of the Russian empire. So, obviously, two languages of the same origin have many similarities.

Let’s looks at different areas of a language to compare how similar or and different Ukrainian and Russian are.

Ukrainian And Russian Vocabulary

Let’s start with vocabulary – the actual words we use and pass through generations.

In terms of vocabulary, the Ukrainian language is the closest to Belarusian (16% of differences), and the Russian language to Bulgarian (27% of differences).

After Belarusian, Ukrainian is also closer to Slovak, Polish and Czech than to Russian – 38% of Ukrainian vocabulary is different from Russian.

If we compare with other European languages, the difference is like between Spanish and Italian (33% of different vocabulary) or French and Portuguese (39%).

Ukrainian and Russian differences

Ukrainian and Russian share the oldest words that come from the Proto-Slavic language and were needed for life back then:

Ukrainian Russian English
мати
ніс
зерно
мать
нос
зерно
a mother
a nose
grain

Also, Ukrainian and Russian share words that come from other languages:

Ukrainian Russian English
чай
паспорт
комп’ютер
чай
паспорт
компьютер
tea (from Chinese 茶)
passport (from French passer port)
computer (from English)

However, there is a 38% difference in vocabulary, including foreign words.

During and after Peter the Great’s Europeanization campaign, the Russian language incorporated many words of Latin, French, German, and Italian origin. The Ukrainian language mostly developed based on the spoken language that the 19th century’s writers started to actively use in their literary and research works.

Here are some examples of differences between Ukrainian and Russian vocabulary:

Ukrainian Russian English
травень
звідки
ранок
червоний
другий
людина
Як справи?
май
откуда
утро
красный
второй
человек
Как дела?
May (month)
where from
morning
red
second
man, person
How are you?

There are plenty Ukrainian-Russian homonyms – words that sound the same, but mean completely different things:

  • час
    • time (in Ukrainian)
    • an hour (in Russian)
  • неділя (Ukr.) – неделя (Rus.)
    • Sunday (in Ukrainian)
    • a week (in Russian)
  • лук
    • a bow (in Ukrainian)
    • an onion (in Russian)

Ukrainian And Russian Alphabets

Both Russian and Ukrainian languages use the Cyrillic script. There are 7 differences though. Have a look at Russian (on top) and then Ukrainian alphabets to compare:
are ukrainian and russian alphabets the same difference between ukrainian and russian alphabet

Differences between Ukrainian and Russian alphabets are the following:

1. Ґ in Ukrainian 

The Ukrainian alphabet has Ґ ґ, but Russian doesn’t (in Russian, г represents the sound /g/).

2. І in Ukrainian 

The Ukrainian alphabet has І і, but the Russian one doesn’t (in Russian, it’s и to represent /i/).

3. Ы in Russian

The Russian alphabet has ы, but the Ukrainian one doesn’t (in Ukrainian, it’s и to represent /y/).

4. Є in Ukrainian

The Ukrainian alphabet has Є є, but the Russian one doesn’t (in Russian, е represents /je/).

5. Ї in Ukrainian

The Ukrainian alphabet has Ї ї, but Russian doesn’t (in Russian, it’s a combination йи to represent /ji/).

6. Ё in Russian

The Russian alphabet has Ё ё, but Ukrainian doesn’t (in Ukrainian, it’s a combination йо to represent /jo/)

7. ъ in Russian

The Russian alphabet has the hard sign (ъ), but Ukrainian doesn’t (in Ukrainian, the apostrophe is used instead ().

Pronunciation

Most of the sounds themselves in Russian and Ukrainian are the same or very similar. However, there are some differences in pronunciation that depend on the combinations of sounds.

Here are the major differences between Ukrainian and Russian pronunciation.

1.  Sound [г] in the Ukrainian language

The Ukrainian language has a specific sound represented by the letter Г г. It sounds similar to [h] in Aha!

There is no such a sound in Russian, so Ukrainians are easily spotted when they speak Russian as they sometimes forget not to use this sound.

2. In Russian, О is often pronounced as [a]

The Russian letter O о is pronounced as [a] or an unclear schwa [ə] when it is not stressed. In Ukrainian, О is always pronounced as [o]. For example:

Ukrainian Russian English
молоко – [molokó] молоко – [malakó]  milk

3. More soft consonants in Ukrainian

In the Ukrainian language, the soft consonants are used more often than in Russian (and many other Slavic languages):

Ukrainian Russian English
цілуватися – [ts’iluvatys’a] (2 soft c.) целоваться – [tsylavats:a] (0 soft c.)  to kiss

4. Ukrainian “И”, “Е” are not completely the same as Russian “Ы”, “Э” 

These difference are subtle and depend on the person’s dialect too, but in short:

  • Russian [ы] is deeper than Ukrainian [и].
  • Russian [э] is more open than Ukrainian [е].

Ukrainian And Russian Grammar

In general, it is quite easy to learn the grammar of the second Slavic language, because they all have similar principles and categories: noun cases, verb tenses, genders, etc.

That is why we can say that Russian and Ukrainian grammar systems are very similar by concepts, but they differ by the representation (endings).

Compare two sentences below. They have the same grammar structure (Nominative case + Past tense + Accusative case + Instrumental case), but the endings are different:

Ukrainian Russian English
Він замовив вареники з капустою. Он заказал вареники с капустой.  He ordered varenyky with cabbage.

Some more important grammar differences include:

1. Vocative case in Ukrainian

In Russian, nouns can be used in 6 cases (forms), in Ukrainian, there are 7 cases. An extra one is called Кличний відмінок – Vocative case. It is used to directly address someone, like in the correspondence:

Ukrainian Russian English
Привіт, Максиме і Катю! (Vocative case) Привeт, Максим і Катя! (Nominative case) Hi Maxim and Katya.

2. Different ways to say “I have”

In Russian, the most common way to say “I have” is: У меня есть.

In Ukrainian, we use two forms: У мене є (by Russian influence) and also Western Slavic Я маю.

3. 3 types of the future tense in Ukrainian

In Ukrainian, there are 3 grammatical ways to talk about the future. In Russian, there are two of them.

See below the future tense for робити – делать (to do):

Ukrainian Russian English
Я зроблю.
(Perfective)

Я буду робити.
(Imperfective analytical form

)Я робитиму.
(Imperfective synthetic form)

Я сделаю.
(Perfective)

Я буду делать.
(Imperfective)

 

I will do / I will be doing

Syntax

Sentence organization is probably the area where the Ukrainian and Russian languages (as well as many other Slavic languages) are the most similar. 

Compare the structure of a folktale which is famous in both Ukrainian and Russian “Рукавичка” (The Mitten):

Ukrainian Russian English
Ішов дід лісом, а за ним бігла собачка, та й загубив дід рукавичку.

От біжить мишка, улізла в ту рукавичку та й каже:

— Тут я буду жити!
Шёл дед лесом, а за ним бежала собачка, и потерял дед рукавичку.

Вот бежит мышка, залезла в рукавичку:

— Тут я буду жить!

An Old Man was walking through the forest with his dog and he dropped his mitten.

Just then a mouse came running up,  climbed right in and said:

“This is where I’m going to live.”

***

These were only some of the similarities and differences between Ukrainian and Russian languages. I hope from this list and examples you are able to compare these Slavic languages.

Do you know Russian and want to learn Ukrainian?

If you know Russian, and you would like to start learning Ukrainian, we have great news for you. I have a plan to create an online course specifically oriented to people who already know Russian or any other Slavic language (as a native or foreign language).

I understand that the needs of Russian speakers in learning Ukrainian are different and more specific. So, I would like to create a course that would make a life of such learners easier. This course will be entirely in Ukrainian, as Russian speakers usually understand Ukrainian speech quite well.

I plan to release the course in October 2018. However, you can sign up now and be the first to know about the start! Just fill in the information below and I will email you with updates:


Нехай щастить! Желаю удачи! Good luck! 🙂

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Anna Ohoiko

Привіт! Мене звати Анна. I am a Ukrainian linguist, teacher, and the Ukrainian Lessons founder. My biggest hobby is to learn foreign languages and my passion to teach the most beautiful one. I also enjoy traveling, cooking and being with my friends and family.

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